In recent decades, many have portrayed evolution as a process based solely on genetic selfishness, otherwise devoid of positive structure or meaning. In this lecture, Professor Sarah Coakley draws on recent developments in mathematical biology to outline a richer, multi-levelled depiction. She argues that the competitive drive of individuals to gain genetic advantage is only one of the explanations for evolutionary cooperation; a fuller understanding of the mechanisms at work indicates a much richer picture, in which selection and cooperation are in constant dialectical play throughout the evolutionary spectrum.
After establishing the biological evidence for these cooperative processes, Coakley presents philosophical, ethical, and theological implications. This new understanding of cooperation within evolution not only re-opens the vexed question of evolutionary “teleology”, but may be argued to lead toward a natural basis for ethics. It is a short step from here to ask about the future possibilities for a new “natural theology,” though one very different from classic modern forms. More concretely, can this re-evaluation of our ancient evolutionary past enhance our capacity for intentional human cooperation (altruism) in facing our current political, ethical, and ecological crises?
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